Turkish anger over the deadly storming Monday of the Gaza aid ships is another setback for Mideast peace and a serious problem for Israel, which until recently counted Turkey as one of its few allies in the Mideast.
When news broke that a convoy of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza had been stormed by Israeli commandos, large groups of angry demonstrators gathered in downtown Istanbul. Many carried Palestinian flags; others waved placards saying, “We are all Palestinians” and “Israel: Killers.”
Images of the stormed ships dominated the television news, the pictures made all the more poignant for Istanbulis because of the familiar Mavi Marmara logo on the largest, a ferry leased from an Istanbul-based shipping line. More than 400 of the 580 passengers were
Turks. Much of the aid on board had also been paid for by public subscription through a network of Turkish charities, one of which is headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s wife, Emine.
Turkish customs officials are disputing Israeli claims that weapons were on board, claiming that all passengers were searched as they embarked from Turkey.
Anti-Israeli demonstrations are not uncommon in Turkey, and the game of recalling ambassadors happens so frequently to have become almost meaningless. Last year Erdogan stormed out of a meeting at Davos with Israeli President Shimon Peres after telling him that “You know well how to kill people.”
But this time the rupture appears to be more serious, the Turkish anger deeper, and the consequences likely to be longer-lasting. It’s a bad time for Israel to alienate Turkey. Thanks to a fortuitous alignment of foreign-policy opportunities and an industrious foreign minister, Ankara has over the last year made dramatic steps toward patching up differences with its neighbors, as well as forging close ties with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu told NEWSWEEK last fall that Turkey’s “primary strategic relationship is with NATO” and the West. Nonetheless, Ankara has also taken a leadership role in the region it hasn’t occupied since Ottoman days, instituting visa-free travel with Syria and boosting economic ties with all its eastern neighbors.
The most dramatic recent demonstration of Turkey’s regional ambitions was last week’s attempt by Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to broker a nuclear deal with Tehran. The year before, Erdogan attempted (unsuccessfully) a high-profile peace deal between Israel and Syria and tried to find common ground between Israel and Hamas. Ankara’s motives may not be entirely altruistic; being on the international stage boosts Turks’ sense of their strategic importance, and regional diplomacy also boosts Turkish exports. But there’s no denying the utility to Jerusalem of having a friendly Muslim country willing to act as an honest broker with some of Israel’s most implacable enemies.
Turkey’s friendship has historically been very important to Israel. Until last year the Israeli Air Force used the plains of Anatolia for training (those programs have been severely curtailed in the wake of the Gaza war in 2008 and 2009), and the Turkish military long had close ties with the Israel Defense Forces. With public opinion in Turkey running so passionately against Israel, even the Turkish military has backed away from its former friend. Three of the last remaining joint Turkish-Israeli military-training programs were canceled Monday.
An official Turkish government statement captured the angry mood in Ankara, warning of “irreparable consequences” for the two countries’ relations. Erdogan himself cut short a trip to South America and blasted the Israeli actions as “state-sponsored terrorism.” With public feeling running so high, even Turkish opposition figures condemned the attacks, leaving pretty much no pro-Israeli voice on the Turkish political scene.
In the long term, that damages Israel. By alienating Turkey, Jerusalem has lost a potentially crucial ally in its decades-old attempts to reach a grand bargain with the Arab world—a bargain that Turkey, in its newfound role as regional leader, could have helped to broker. As it is, Turkey’s eastward drift will only accelerate, propelled by growing disenchantment with the European Union and a groundswell of anti-U.S. feeling in the wake of the Iraq War.